The Queen of Bohemia: The Autobiography of Dulcie Deamer: Being `the Golden Decade'

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The Queen of Bohemia: The Autobiography of Dulcie Deamer: Being `The Golden Decade', edited with an introduction by Peter Kirkpatrick. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1998. Paperback, $29.95.

Biographies of writers have maintained their popularity for many years, both here and overseas, a fact sometimes attributed to the chance they give `busy people' to become acquainted with an author's work without having to read it. The imputation is probably unjust: many people are driven to read or reread an author's works as a direct consequence of reading a good biography. It is true, though, that biographies of writers seem to possess a range of what might be called secondary functions: they can provide not only conveniently digested samplings of the writers' work, but also serviceable frameworks for cultural historiography and for literary history and criticism.

Some literary biographies, however, scarcely offer the simple delights of sampling an author's work at all. This is often the kind that aspires to serious and systematic psychological interpretation of its human subject. It is literary biography in its most ambitious but also, I think, its least popular form. Of the three books of `life-writing' to hand, only one, Frances De Groen's Xavier Herbert: A Biography, essays this kind of systematic treatment and does it quite well. De Groen uses a psychoanalytic model based on the Freudian concept of `narcissism'. In this specialised sense, narcissism refers to a pre-Oedipal phase of ego-development, the pathological prolonging of which into adult life produces a range of self-centred and `grandiose' behaviours. The model had some currency in American literary biography in the 1980s -- Frederick Karl's of Joseph Conrad is an example -- but in Australia, at least, it has figured mainly in political psychobiography: in James Waiter's biography of Gough Whitlam, for example. It is hard to imagine anyone less like Xavier Herbert. Does this tell us something about the value of the model? I'm not sure.

De Groen does not belabour us unduly with her model, and she gives it something of a feminist slant and a postcolonial tweak. What she doesn't do is show why anyone should care what Herbert's psyche was like. There are many sexually insecure, socially obnoxious ranters in the world, and Xavier Herbert, it seems, was one of them. For me at least, seeing him as a narcissistic personality does not redeem him or make him any more interesting; nor does it explain him in any significant way. At most it suggests that he couldn't help being who he was. Most people can't.

De Groen seems determined to avoid revealing Herbert's more engaging sides, such as they were. According to Beatrice Davis: `When he was funny he was "wonderful"', but De Groen seems not to have attempted to find anecdotes which would convey this otherwise invisible dimension to the reader -- or perhaps she tried and failed, but with such a wealth of anecdote at her disposal it seems unlikely she could not have found something suitable.

What makes Herbert noteworthy above all, however, is that he could sometimes write very well indeed -- Capricornia, at least, is a great novel, and claims are still made for Poor Fellow My Country. Yet De Groen gives us very little sense of the quality of his writing, as distinct from its evidential value for her analysis of his psyche. Snatches of his prose are quoted, but always as part of her `reading' of Herbert-the-man; the titles of innumerable short stories are cited, usually without a plot summary, let alone a quotation with some textual space around it to invite our appreciation. Is this really too much to ask? If Herbert could write -- and he could -- why keep it a secret? For most readers, it's the one thing that makes him worth reading a book about; but if they come expecting to sample his wares they will be -- as I'm afraid I was -- disappointed.

There is no disappointment of that kind with Barbara Brooks's Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life. …